With the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, it was assumed that the area known as West Florida was a part of the United States. However, Spain claimed the lands as her own. Ultimately in 1810, citizens of West Florida revolted from Spain and set up their own country known as the Republic of West Florida. From most accounts the land was claimed by the United States, governed by the Spanish, and inhabited by the French and English with a sprinkling of other European settlers.
The treaty at the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War (French and Indian War) in 1763 gave Britain the Spanish colony of Florida and other former French colonial lands of Louisiana and the Mississippi and Alabama Gulf Coasts. These were reorganized into the provinces of East Florida and West Florida. Essentially West Florida included the Florida Panhandle, the lower “heels” of Alabama and Mississippi, and the eastern portion of Louisiana roughly from Baton Rouge south to the mouth of the Mississippi River.
The new British lands brought many new settlers into the area who proved to be Loyalists during the American Revolution. The Treaty of Paris at the end of the war returned the lands of West Florida to Spain and reset the northern boundary to its original 31st parallel. But Spain wanted the northern boundary to be at 32 degrees 22 minutes north latitude instead. It was not until 1795 with the Treaty of Lorenzo that Spain recognized the border as the 31st parallel.
Another chapter in the story is that in 1800 Spain returned its Louisiana Colony to France with the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso. The transaction “muddied the waters” because with the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 the United States considered West Florida its property. Yet Spain also claimed it.
The Spanish letters of The Lower Mississippi Data Base give evidence of “stress” between the United States and Spain from 1805 to 1810. Various incidents and encounters between the two countries reveal that both claimed the area of West Florida and its adjacent waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Local historians Russell Guerin and Marco Giardino, Ph. D. have reviewed many of the letters in detail and made the following observation:
One such letter “dated August 5, 1808, described an action by four American gunboats that came to Cat Island. Their crew killed various cattle and other livestock belonging to [Pedro] Morin. Also, they went to Pass Christian where they killed a cow belonging to Jose Labat. In addition, the American captain of one vessel demanded that a Spanish schooner submit to an inspection and was very angry when told he had no right in Spanish waters.”
President James Madison followed Thomas Jefferson’s belief that the area would eventually become a part of the United States. Even though the United States and Spain continued negotiations concerning the rightful owner of West Florida, tensions continued to rise with more American settlers moving into the area. The new inhabitants and earlier British settlers resented being under Spanish rule.
The idea of rebellion against Spain began to circulate among the populace. In fact in 1804 there had been an unsuccessful attempt by the Kemper brothers (Nathan, Reuben, and Samuel) of Pinckneyville, Mississippi Territory, to lead such a rebellion. According to Robert Higgs, Ph.D., the uprising failed mostly because “its leaders miscalculated the strength of pro-French, pro-British, and pro-Spanish elements, all of whom felt threatened by the pro-American faction the Kempers represented and, in part, because many residents recognized that the Kempers were not so much revolutionaries as opportunistic and unscrupulous marauders mouthing political slogans.”
The establishment of the Republic of West Florida began on the night of September 22-23, 1810, when a group of “disgruntled settlers” from the Mississippi Territory, led by Philemon Thomas, attacked the Spanish fort at Baton Rouge. In the melee two Spanish soldiers were killed, and five others, wounded. Later William Cooper, a staunch Spanish loyalist in the Baton Rouge area, was summarily murdered by these ruffians. Among those Mississippi settlers were the Kemper brothers, who had led the earlier, unsuccessful rebellion. In fact, Reuben Kemper led a small force in an abortive attempt to capture Mobile.
Several accounts show that most of the settlers of West Florida supported the Spanish government. Two Spanish letters in the Lower Mississippi Data Base—one from Benjamin Howard to Simon Favre and another from Spanish official Cayetano Perez of Mobile to the Spanish Governor General Vincente Folchs—support this idea. It seems that most of the settlers of the area wanted nothing to do with the rebel government.
Ultimately the Republic of West Florida established a weak government with its capital at St. Francisville, LA. Under the leadership of President Fulmar Skipwith, the little country existed in theory, and to some degree in reality, for seventy-four days from September 23—December 7, 1810. It even created the first lone star flag known as “The Bonnie Blue Flag,” which was later used by the Confederacy in the War Between the States.
There is no conclusive evidence that the U. S. government directly supported this rebellion. However, there is speculation that there was some “behind the scenes” involvement. In any event the United States profited from the uprising. William C. C. Claiborne, former governor of the Mississippi Territory and present governor of the Louisiana Territory, was sent by President Madison to take possession of the territory, and on December 6, 1810, St. Francisville was taken. On December 10, 1810, Baton Rouge was seized, and the two areas were assimilated into the newly formed Orleans Territory.
In 1810 only the portion of West Florida within the present state of Louisiana was seized and later the area between the Mississippi and Pearl Rivers; nonetheless, the lands of the Mississippi Gulf Coast were not included. On April 8, 1812, President James Madison claimed West Florida based on the 1803 Louisiana Purchase from France, to whom Spain had previously relinquished Louisiana. Still, the coastal lands were not included. However, in August 1812 Mississippi Territorial Governor Holmes issued an edict making the entire Mississippi Territorial Gulf Coast one county—Mobile. The area included all of the lands east of the Pearl River, west of the Perdido, and south of the 31st parallel. In December 1812 Mobile County was divided to form two additional counties, Hancock and Jackson. The remainder of West Florida was ceded to the U. S. in 1819 with the Adams-Onis Treaty.
Mississippi entered the Union on December 10, 1817, with Hancock being one of the original counties. Subsequently, Hancock was later subdivided into the present-day counties of Hancock, Harrison, Jackson, George, Stone, and part of Pearl River.
Guerin, Russell B. and Giardino, Marco. “Hancock County as Part of West Florida.” Russell Guerin: A Creole in Mississippi. 23 Dec. 2009. web. 13 Aug. 2010 <www.russguerin.com>.
Hancock County Historical Society vertical files.
Higgs, Robert. “Not Merely Perfidious but Ungrateful: The U. S. Take- over of West Florida.” The In- dependent Institute, 14 Mar. 2005. 7 July 2010 <www.independent.org>.
“History of St. Tammany Parish.” St. Tammany Parish Government, 2007. web. 12 Aug. 2010 <www.stpgov.org>.
“History of the Republic.” Republic of West Florida Volunteers, n.d. Web. 29 July 2010 <www.west-
McNamara, Dave. “Republic of West Florida.” Heart of Louisiana. 25 May 2010. web. 29 July 2010 <www.fox8live.com>.
“West Florida.” Wikipedia. 16 July 2010. web. 29 July 2010 <en.wikipedia.org>.